Fiction

2015

‘The Insurrectionist and the Empress Who Reigns Over Time’ in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Yin Sanhi is the woman who foments and leads revolutions, knowing always that she’s one step from her fall – and Empress Narasorn proves her equal. Epic fantasy in 6,000 words.

‘The Petals Abide’ in Clarkesworld Magazine. Petals fall from Twoseret’s mouth, prophetic. They predict her life, death, loss. But they may prove fallible after all when an assassin is sent to her as a gift. 6,200 words.

‘And the Burned Moths Remain’ on Tor.com. Long ago Jingfei sold the world of her birth, Tiansong, to the Hegemony. Kept as a political prisoner, she bides her eternal sentence in the company of her countless bodies. An envoy arrives with an offer: a bargain to undo history and redeem Jingfei’s name. 6,100 words.

2014

Scale-Bright, a novella from Immersion Press. Shortlisted for the British SF Association Award.

‘Chrysalises’ in Dangerous Games, edited by Jonathan Oliver (Solaris Books).

‘The Governess and We’ in Steampunk World, edited by Sarah Hans (Alliteration Ink).

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TRANSISTOR – the Mute Heroine and her Faceless, Nameless Lover

They took away her voice. She took up an omnipotent sword that alters reality. This is a love story and a contemplation on tragedy, power, and mutability.

It’s interesting to me that, for the entire game, we never see Sword Boyfriend’s face and he’s never named. Red, of course, has a face and a name but no voice outside her singing; we only ever hear her speak, as such, a single word at the very end. This post will contain spoilers, but this came out May 2014 so, you know.

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THREE Balancing Cleansing Oil – the search for perfect is over


(Photo credit: Carryna Pratiwi.)

This is it. The holy grail. My search for the perfect cleansing oil is over. Completely over. This is the best thing ever.

Previously, I’ve tried a number of cleansing oil – I favor mineral oil since it works very well for me, but Shu Uemura’s cleansing oil (of which mineral oil is the primary ingredient) is a bit expensive for what it is: mineral oil-based products should… well, just be a lot cheaper. Essentially I don’t think the Shu Uemura oil justifies the price.

Enter THREE Balancing Cleansing Oil ($32 for 200 ml). Fairly steep price tag, unless you’re buying at the right time and catch a BOGO sale, in which case it’s pretty fabulous and reasonably priced. First let’s look at the ingredients list.

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Lavie Tidhar’s A MAN LIES DREAMING, in response to the Nazi romance controversy

Deep in the heart of history’s most infamous concentration camp, a man lies dreaming. His name is Shomer, and before the war he was a pulp fiction author. Now, to escape the brutal reality of life in Auschwitz, Shomer spends his nights imagining another world – a world where a disgraced former dictator now known only as Wolf ekes out a miserable existence as a low-rent PI in London’s grimiest streets.

An extraordinary story of revenge and redemption, A Man Lies Dreaming is the unforgettable testament to the power of imagination.

It’s my belief that, when you’re seeing harm done, the greatest priority is to do your part in making redress to those harmed.

In the wake of the controversy surrounding a Nazi romance (it’s predictably offensive in pretty much all the ways you can imagine: ‘redeeming’ a Nazi commander, rape-as-romance and all), I remembered that I had never properly reviewed A Man Lies Dreaming, and that’s really a shame. It’s a very unique book, and Mahvesh Murad agrees with me, exceptional and ambitious in a lot of ways. So this is what I think of it.

Spoilers: I think you should get a copy. Trigger warnings for discussions of, well… the Holocaust. The book also contains explicit rape and sexualized violence.

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Recent shorts: Mondal, Nuallak, Khaw, Moreno-Garcia

I find you under my bed one night when I am looking for a lost suitcase, curled up and desolate as if you were just a dead tree. You shrink from my reach. I have no idea how long you have been there. I wonder if you can tell.
I stopped dreading you when I was ten. Ten years it took me to get over the unseen monster under the bed who kept me from getting out after lights-off. I wonder what you wanted then; what you want now. I wonder what you eat. I wonder if you will eat me.

But you only want to be.

‘Things to Do after They’re Gone’ by Mimi Mondal (Daily SF, 2015). A magic realist flash: a queer narrator, with a touch of the coming-out arc but not dominated by it. Wistful, lingering, and empathetic.

You sit and are lectured on a self Othered through others’ eyes. Except for one Thai man, the lecturer cites theorists and academics like her, white and Western.

She says, “There are no feminists in Thailand—Thai women don’t really identify as feminists. It’s just not done. People talk about Southeast Asian women having power and ownership, but…” she shrugs.

(It’s never occurred to the lecturer to ask what a Thai woman thinks of herself, let alone a krasue’s view of her own condition.)

‘She Shines Like a Moon’ by Pear Nuallak (Lackington’s, 2015). Easily my favorite of my most recent reads: it is effortlessly political and beautifully told, efficiently making use of the krasue’s immortality as metaphor for diaspora, her place in London defined by solitude and alienation until she finds fellowship with a local witch (there’s a hint of queerness there too, of course). It’s also in second person, which as we know is my absolute favorite POV.

‘To See Pedro Infante’ by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2014). This is more realist than the previous two, short and elegantly told while being complex on the intersection of class, performativity, and gender. Like much of Silvia’s fiction, it is set in Mexico – and like all insider narratives, the Mexico of this brief but multi-faceted story is absolutely not exotified but rather treated as completely normal: a real place rather than a Hollywood backdrop. It’s entirely mundane, about a fairly mundane woman with an unusual gift but whose concerns are entirely grounded in the every day, the pragmatic. I’m happy for this kind of literary focus. Despite the sparseness of the story (there’s almost no dialogue), this is a more realistic story than many.

I do wish it was a bit less heteronormative (which I also felt with Signal to Noise), but that’s a small aside and not a quibble everyone will share. The story is a reprint, originally published in Love and Other Poisons.

 

She wore her mother’s bones to the ball.

“You’re getting fat,” hissed the bejeweled skull on her hip.

She hushed her mother. It wasn’t the best arrangement. She had wanted a demure gown, green as limes, not the pale jade silks that foamed over her legs. The electric blues of her kingfisher mask were appealing, true, but they lacked the gravity of a hawk’s cruel smirk. And the slippers? Banana-gold slippers left much to be desired for.

‘Her Pound of Flesh’ by Cassandra Khaw (Mythic Delirium, 2015). This mixes the familiar elements of ‘The Little Mermaid’, Cinderella, and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ then recasts them into something else entirely – and what it is is very rich, pretty, and focused entirely on women: their pettiness, monstrosity, fury, power whether they are immortal witch or mortal peasant-to-princess.

Recent short fiction reads: Das, Mehentee, Miller

I look out over the sea-wall to the grey expanse of the Gangetic Delta. It’s cloudy but bright, dispersed sunlight soaking the clotted clouds and making me squint. The sea-walls weren’t there when I was last in Kolkata. The tide has risen since.

“Do you want to?” I ask Teresa. Her bump pushes against the bright red kameez she’s wearing. It’s not too obvious yet. She looks at the capsule in her hand. It’s transparent, like an oversized pill the size of a phone. I suppress the memory of small bodies looking alien in their stillness, as if Akir’s light had marked them as its own species. The capsule is surprisingly heavy. It holds the remains of our baby, who was born on Akir’s World. We brought the ashes of our children with us, so they didn’t have to be sown in the quartz-dusted soils of their homeworld.

‘A Moon for the Unborn’ by Indrapamit Das (Strange Horizons, 2014) starts with the image of unborn children walking in a single file on an alien world – an image that haunts the protagonist and his wife even after they have returned to Earth. It explores loss, the difficulties in keeping your relationship alive in the face of alien nightmares. It’s also remarkable in that the Kolkata it portrays is depicted as normal, treated as perfectly everyday, showing once again the immense gulf between the insider and outsider view (and affirming that the outsider view is, at best, unnecessary and at worst harmful). This Kolkata is effortlessly real, effortlessly alive, populated by people rather than colonialist caricatures. This is lived culture rather than costume.

The protagonist Vir is a trans man, a facet that does play a part in how he navigates the world, but it’s not played up as exclusively a mark of trauma or otherness. There’s nothing of oppression porn in this story; instead it’s about coming to terms, about nuanced humanity, about being able to continue in the face of trauma. Interestingly I’d say this hovers beautifully between magic realism and hard SF, which is a fantastic – and unique – interstice to inhabit. It’s a subtle, understated piece. I adore it and very much look forward to Indrapamit’s novel The Devourers being released in ebook (I’ve also heard good things about it from trusted sources).

To Reshma, this poor little boy sounded as if he’d been cursed. She and her sisters knew a thing or two about a curse’s power. Since it was believed that the presence of her kind at weddings and births brought good luck, so it followed that a Hijra’s curse brought calamity. It was all that prevented others’ insults from escalating into violence.

‘The Salt Mosquito’s Bite and The Goddess’ Sting’ by Jehangir Mehentee (Strange Horizons, 2015) is a quiet slice-of-life story with the air of a fable: atmospheric, sweet, down-to-earth and like the Das story, it’s effortless in its portrayal of life. It also depicts hijra characters in an understated way, without (I think) othering or making them exotic, or marked only by trauma. It does take into account the difficulties they face but it doesn’t make that the point of their existences. Instead, this is a story that focuses solely on spirituality, religion, and rediscovering faith.

‘When Your Child Strays From God’ by Sam J. Miller (Clarkesworld, 2015) is a story that requires some background knowledge to contextualize. The basics: parts of the United States of America (also called the USA or simply the States) practice Christianity in a specific way, invoking hellfire, brimstone, and damnation on anyone not strictly conforming to a narrow code of conduct – such as going to church (a house of worship typically marked by crosses – the vertically asymmetrical one, not the one that looks like an X – and benches called pews, not to be confused with pew-pew), being homosexual, and I’m not sure what else; perhaps wearing makeup and using skincare, seeing that the narrator and her community appear to have atrocious skin.

Joking aside, this story uses the conceit of a psychedelic drug to introduce a fundamentalist pastor’s wife to the concept of empathy and understanding her son deeper than the surface of propriety and parental nostalgia. It’s told through absurdist hallucination and I appreciate that despite the setup this doesn’t turn out to be a Coming Out or Queer Trauma story. It’s a perfectly charming, breezy story and I enjoy the narrator’s interiority making her more than a soccer mom stereotype. The gossipy tone fits just right, as do amusing, witty passages like:

I climbed the steps slowly, aware of the sin I was about to commit. I paused at the door to his room.

Let me tell you something about the bedrooms of teenage boys. They are sovereign nations, islands of liberty hedged in on all sides by brutal tyranny. To cross the threshold uninvited is an act of war. To intrude and search is a crime meriting full-scale thermonuclear response: neutron-bomb silence, mutually-assured temper tantrums.

So I did not enter Timmy’s room lightly, and panic seized me in the instant that I did. Fear stopped me in my tracks, threatened to turn me around. The smell of stale laundry made my head swim—the bodily odors that meant my little boy had become a man. I summoned him up as the smiling little boy he had been before puberty caused him to declare independence, defy us as righteously and violently as America spurned its colonial overlords.

(Soccer mom is used in the story, another Americanism I didn’t get but which has been explained to me by Australian, Canadian, and Dutch friends; for which many thanks! Soccer is itself also an Americanism, quaintly to refer to what the rest of us call simply ‘football.’ I’m not sure what a pastor is, but no matter.)

FOR EXPOSURE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A SMALL PRESS PUBLISHER, Jason Sizemore

Before I go any further, let me give writers these words of advice: never, ever respond to a rejection. You’re not going to change anybody’s mind. Move on and try again with a different story.

Also before I go any further, let me give editors these words of advice: never, ever respond to a rejection response. The writer at the other end of the letter is likely in an emotional and irrational state. Move on, you have hundreds of stories waiting for you in the slush pile.

Jason Sizemore’s For Exposure isn’t quite like anything else I’ve read – for that matter I don’t think there are too many titles out there chronicling the life and times of running a small press (writers’ memoirs are plenty; editors’ and publishers’ less so).

It’s a very personal, and very honest, book. It gets into the numbers, the practicalities: being cheated out of money by distributors, That Guy who won’t stop pitching the editor terrible novels at cons, the ups and downs of running a business specializing in some of the most unpredictable markets on earth. It also reminds us that publishing is – though certainly a business – also a thing most people do as a labor of love (paid, of course, but it’s mostly about love of reading and love of the imagination rather than the Capitalistic Dream).

It is also, of course, absolutely entertaining.

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Toward a narrative without queer tragedy

‘The Insurrectionist and the Empress Who Reigns Over Time’ is up on Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

They captured the insurrectionist Yin Sanhi during the Feast of Twelve Luminous Cranes. They found her in Onsakit the Red Capital, which she had helped conquer, where an army led by mathematicians and blade-artists had disemboweled a dynasty five centuries old. It was a baking day, the sun in apex; royal bodies cast to the sand were quick to cook.

This is exactly what it says on the tin, and a proof – if you needed any, which you wouldn’t if you’ve read BCS before – that you can have epic fantasy within 6,000 words (that’s 20-24 pages in paperback). I also wrote it as part of a conversation against toxic queer ‘tragedy porn’. I compiled a growing list of recommendations of books where queer characters are central but the Queer Trauma is not.

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating that nothing bad should happen to queer – or specifically lesbian – characters ever. (In fact, if you click through to the story you’d find that… well.) But I am tired of stories where queer people suffer specifically due to their orientation: living in a fascistically homophobic society say, or having the only love of their queer lives die on them, or similar. You know the type. There’s even a trope name for it, ‘Bury your gays’ I believe. You know it when you see it. It’s not just that a queer character suffers or dies; it’s that their suffering or tragedy is linked inextricably to their sexuality – a lesbian queen forced to have sex with a man (i.e. rape), say. This suffering is fetishized, allegedly to show that homophobia is bad but done at the expense of queer comfort. It’s often created or written by someone who is not queer and who doesn’t actually understand queer trauma.

Trust me when I say that queer people, by and large, know that Homophobia is Bad. I’m not sure, then, what purpose the ‘tragedy porn’ is meant to serve, who it’s supposed to be for. Which gaze it caters to. ‘Poverty porn’ isn’t exactly for the poverty-stricken, is it?

(Not to mention that trans people and black people are perfectly capable of telling their own stories and raising their voices. They don’t need me, or you.)

I’m not elected spokesperson for all lesbians, certainly, but on a personal level I confess I don’t like it when people like me are reduced to this single attribute: suffering. It’s dehumanizing, and I often read books that contain lesbians waiting for the moment: where they’d be traumatized because of their sexuality, where they lose the love of their lives (and when a lesbian loses her lover or her wife, it’s extra traumatic), where they’re reduced to the Queer Trauma and nothing else.

Life imitates art. When all you see in media is people like you suffering, and suffering and suffering, exactly for their mark of marginalization, you feel miserable. You can’t envision a future for yourself that doesn’t resemble all the narratives you have seen. It limits your thinking. It chips away at your mind and fractures your imagination.

To judge by twitter chatter for the last few days, I think it’s safe to say that I’m not the only one to feel this way; that I’m not the only one who wants more narrative models of queer joy, whether as couples or alone, whether mundane or epic. We need a narrative model that says it’s possible for us to be happy and alive, that it’s possible for us to find fulfillment. That we are not this one thing, the Queer Trauma, the Suffering from Homophobia Which is Bad. That we are, in short, human and fully so.

And this model, of treating us as fully human, should be the norm rather than the exception.